Waiting for Spring, Waiting for the Birds

Julie Zickefoose, an avid birdwatcher, had been looking forward to warm weather this spring. But a late cold snap is altering the migration patterns of the species she tracks.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The spring cold snap that's enveloped a good part of the country this week has been bad for peaches, apples, pecans, wheat. And we wondered, what about migrating birds? So we've asked our outdoor aficionado and bird lover, commentator Julie Zickefoose, to join us today.

And Julie, has it been cold where you live in Whipple, Ohio?

JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: It's been absolutely dreadful, Melissa. It has been in the 20s at night, and only getting up into the 30s and low 40s during the day.

BLOCK: And for a birdwatcher like you, does that make you worried?

ZICKEFOOSE: It is torture. It is absolute torture. We had been enjoying a nice, slow building trickle of migrating Warblers, things like Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and that just got shut off just like a faucet when the temperatures plummeted, because, of course, there's nothing to eat for these insectivores when it gets that cold.

BLOCK: Well, what happens? Are they taking a cue and heading back south?

ZICKEFOOSE: I wish I could tell you that, Melissa. I don't know. I do know that it's very, very hard on them, and I think that a lot of them die.

BLOCK: Have you been seeing any dead birds?

ZICKEFOOSE: No, you know, that's kind of a tough thing to do, because when a bird is feeling bad enough or weak enough to die, they go find the thickest shelter they can find, of course. And so you don't tend to find them just lying on the sidewalk.

BLOCK: Hmm. You had an essay on the program last month, where you talked about your favorite harbinger of spring, and that was the woodcock and the emphatic love song that it would sing. How's your woodcock doing?

ZICKEFOOSE: Oh, my darling little woodcock who sang all night, every night as long as there was a moon, stopped cold the first night that it went down to 22.

BLOCK: Quite literally stopped cold?

ZICKEFOOSE: Oh, yes, that cold. And I rather think that he has not died. I have found woodcocks in times when there's been deep snow or very hard frozen ground, and actually, a small number of woodcocks over winter with us. So I know that they can survive.

BLOCK: You know, I know you're part of a very active and vocal birding community. Are people talking about this? Have you been hearing stories about what's going on in different parts of the country?

ZICKEFOOSE: Yes, definitely. People who run nestbox trails for bluebirds are reporting piles of tree swallows piled into the bluebird and tree swallow boxes trying to seek refuge from the cold. A bluebirder in Wisconsin found 15 tree swallows in one box. And it's a pretty much a dire situation for these birds, because they feed on flying insects.

BLOCK: I was reading yesterday about a man who has birdhouses for purple martins. He was near St. Louis, and he was going out with dead crickets and slinging them off of spoons into the air for the - for martins to feed off of.

ZICKEFOOSE: Yeah. It sounds kind of bizarre to sling crickets off a spoon, but many martin landlords are resorting to trying to feed these birds. And the reason they're flinging the insects and the scrambled eggs off a plastic spoon is because purple martins are aerial insectivores. They will only eat live insects that they catch on the wing. So what people do is they fling the food into the air, and then the birds swoop down and get it.

BLOCK: Julie, you said scrambled eggs?

ZICKEFOOSE: Yes. That's pretty much the first thing I do when I get a debilitated bird in the doors - I will cook up some scrambled eggs. But to my omelet, I usually add dried insects.

BLOCK: Have you noticed in this last week or so that you're not hearing songbirds like you would normally at this time of year?

ZICKEFOOSE: Absolutely. The dawn chorus is very muted. Of course, the hardy residents like the titmice and the cardinals and the woodpeckers are all singing and drumming, but the migrants have pretty much been silenced. But the good news is the weather started to warm today, and it had better get warmer, because I've got a female bluebird on five eggs on the front yard that are due to hatch the 12th of April. So I'm really hoping it warms up in time.

BLOCK: Julie, thanks so much.

ZICKEFOOSE: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Julie Zickefoose lives in Whipple, Ohio. She's author of the book "Letters from Eden."

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